About twenty-five years ago, I founded the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in honor of my parents because I wanted to change the world for the better. My goal and strategy to achieve change is captured in a short mission statement: “To improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision making and behavior.”
I knew I was tackling a huge issue, but like those who devote their lives to other monumental causes like ending world hunger or eradicating disease, I was, and am, driven by the conviction that any movement toward a worthy goal is worthy if it brings us even a little bit closer to the goal.
It’s like the answer to the question: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time.” Meaningful progress toward any meaningful goal is incremental. So, we begin to end world hunger by feeding as many people as we can and creating resources and systems that will produce and distribute more food. We eradicate disease by treating those who have it and creating antidotes and methods that combat or prevent the causes of the disease.
So, my strategy to improve the ethical quality of society was, and is, to instill and strengthen the ethical consciousness and commitment of children and adults, stimulate their moral courage to do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay, and enhance their ability to achieve their goals ethically.
At the beginning, our efforts focused almost exclusively on training. We defined and promoted fundamental ethical principles and set out to convince people to live up to them. Using the mantra “You don’t have to be sick to get better,” we sought to improve behavior by enhancing awareness of ethical issues, strengthening the commitment to do what’s right, and providing decision-making strategies.
We’ve had many successes over the years, particularly in schools, but our impact has not been as deep or sustainable as we hoped because we failed to understand that every aspect of our approach required people to change the way they think and act. And we underestimated how difficult it is to truly change people and organizational culture.
We weren’t alone. According to Professor John Kotter in the Harvard Business Review, “Despite all the rhetoric, books, effort, and money thrown into change efforts in organizations today, most fail.” He cites studies revealing that about two-thirds of the “Total Quality Management” and “Re-engineering” initiatives were abandoned for failing to accomplish the desired business results.
Personal change efforts ranging from New Year’s resolutions to systematic weight loss programs have similar failure rates.
There is, however, a growing body of research and creative thinking about achieving profound and lasting change. We have been infusing new theories and techniques in our character development programs (most particularly in Puerto Rico) and in our work with corporations and public agencies to create effective and sustainable ethical cultures.
The point is, change is hard, but it’s not impossible.
I hope you’ll join me in the next few days to hear about strategies that work.
This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.
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